Letters from My Windmill (1869) is a collection of newspaper columns – folk tales, sketches, lazing around – by Alphonse Daudet, an author who for a time, a bit after Windmill was written, was the most popular novelist in France, the “Dickens of France,” a designation I would not take too seriously.
This particular book has become his most prominent in English, and I believe also in French, by chance. The pieces are mostly about Provence, about “noble peasants living uncomplaining lives of suffering amidst the cicadas and lavender and Mistral and so on, drinking harsh red wine and eating their simple but nutritious peasant fare,”* and how was Daudet to predict Vincent van Gogh and Michelin Guides and the now massive Provencal tourist industry. Americans romanticize Provence more than the French do, but it is summer cottage land for all of us.
Provence is in France, and therefore wonderful, so my argument against its romanticization is that Normandy, Bordeaux, Roussillon, etc. are also in France and also wonderful. But I have barely been in Provence, just in the edge of it, two days in Avignon, which was wonderful, so perhaps someday I will recant much of this.
What role Daudet had in popularizing Provence I do not know, but the love of Provence has helped keep the book alive, much like Washington Irving’s Tales from the Alhambra has remained attached to a visit to Granada.
The book itself is a work of pure charm. Colleen of Jam & Idleness liked it so much she vowed to read all of Daudet’s books. It is a happy, sentimental book.
After all, why should I be sad? I live a thousand leagues from Paris, on a sun-soaked hill, in the country of tambourines and muscat wine. Around me all is sunshine and music… I ought rather to be dispatching rose-coloured poems and basketfuls of love stories. (Ch. 15)
The little joke here is that the stories generally end in suicide, revenge, shipwreck, or, in one memorable case, mortal combat with a wolf. The sentimentality is that of Dickens or Hugo.
The style is more of a blend of Flaubert and Hugo. Daudet catches some nice effects. Here is a priest racing through a Mass:
Like hurrying wine-harvesters treading the grapes, both splatter about in the latin of the Mass, sending splashes in all directions. (Ch. 17)
Here Daudet has shifted to Algeria to see a snowfall:
In this so pure, so rare air of Algeria, the snow seemed like dust of mother-of-pearl. It had the sheen of white peacock feathers. (Ch. 18)
That last piece, “The Oranges,” begins in Paris, where “oranges have a sad look.” In the winter they are sold from handcarts, so that “thousands of oranges [are]scattered about the streets, the peel lying in the mud of the gutters, making you think of some gigantic Christmas tree shaking its branches laden with artificial fruit all over Paris.” If you are writing a historical novel set in 19th century Paris, you would be crazy not to steal this. With a step or two, memories about oranges take Daudet to a Campo Santo in Corsica, where he watches, in between naps, an old man tend the cemetery:
Yet, without his being aware of it, this good man worked with a kind of reverence, softening all noises and gently closing the door of the vault each time, as if he feared to waken someone. In the great, radiant silence, his care for that little garden disturbed not one bird, and it had nothing of sadness about it. It only made the sea seem more immense, the sky more high; and this siesta without end, amid the ever-restless, ever-triumphant life-forces of nature, diffused all around it the feeling of eternal rest.
Two truffled turkeys, the skin “stretched so tightly you would have thought it was going to burst as it was roasting,” appear at the beginning of Chapter 17. I read an old Penguin Classics edition, tr. Frederick Davies.
* I am quoting myself, something I wrote before I had actually read the book. I was not quite right, but I was close.